Latest Reviews
Wednesday
Feb122014

RoboCop

If you ask me, the original 1987 “RoboCop” is no classic. It’s an entertaining movie, to be sure, but the “classic” status given to it by many always seemed a bit hyperbolic, its biggest issues stemming from a satire and story that were never truly fleshed out. It lampooned popular culture (the sitcom catchphrase “I’d buy that for a dollar!” comes to mind) and culture in general while simultaneously introducing interesting narrative themes that gave it an edge many science fiction films of the time failed to achieve. But at its core, it was a B-movie. While its excessive violence was part of its satire, it’s that very same excess that obscured its meaning. Nevertheless, it had ideas and it should be commended for it. The remake, also titled “RoboCop,” takes similar ideas, flips them around and repackages them, but misses what made the first film so interesting. What it misses in story, however, it makes up for with some terrific and exciting action scenes. The two end up weighing the scale evenly. It’s neither good nor bad. It simply is.

Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) is a police detective in Detroit. He’s one of the few cops working today that isn’t corrupt in a city that seems to be getting more and more violent with each passing day. One day, at the behest of local crime boss Antoine Vallon (Patrick Garrow) who plants a bomb on his car, he finds himself lying in front of his house with fourth degree burns all over his body. He’s all but dead and the only way to save him is to utilize some new technology by big business OmniCorp, run by CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton). Political turmoil has prevented his robots, who have already proven themselves successful in overseas combat, from taking the streets of America. Many believe that since robots don’t know humanity and don’t have the capability to think or feel, they shouldn’t have the right to judge, and potentially arrest or kill, American citizens. However, this new technology combines the best parts of robot and human, so Sellars hopes it will sway popular opinion to his side. Alex is given a second chance and enhanced with mechanical parts. He thinks like a man, but can work like a robot. He’s RoboCop.

And that is the film’s primary deficiency. Amongst the satire, the 1987 film was about a machine trying to find and hold onto its last bit of humanity. The story, while inconsistent, had an arc that slowly built the character into something we could care about. As Murphy discovered that humanity, we too began to see it. Viewers could begin to feel empathy for a creature that, mere moments ago, was merely a machine. This “RoboCop” flips that around. Murphy is all there, the robotic parts existing solely as a means to move around. Sure, he has some enhanced features, like the ability to access security cameras and computer databases at will, but by and large, he’s still human. While this gives the actor portraying Murphy more leeway, it effectively abandons that arc that made the original so good and negates much of the already silly story.

Perhaps aware of this, the film eventually strips Murphy almost entirely of his humanity, down to the bare essentials that the original began with, but this happens so late in the film and Murphy’s gradual post-humanity stripping incline happens at such a rapid fire rate that it hardly has any time to resonate. A story that should be about the human condition instead turns into yet another Hollywood action blockbuster. It muses on the idea of free will, even going so far as to say it’s an illusion, but such ideas are quickly quashed under the weight of mindless action.

Of course, even mindless action can be entertaining when done right. Despite a couple bland early moments, when its action scenes consist of excessive shaky cam and boring shot reverse shot editing, the film eventually gives up the goods. This RoboCop is slicker, sleeker and cooler than the original and is able to perform tasks that defy the weight of the actual suit that the heavy clanking sound effects suggest it to be. Its final action scenes, in particular, do enough to satisfy the basic, visceral instincts many will expect the movie to cater to. While the tail end of the finale is largely anti-climactic, the moments leading up to it are quite exciting; superfluous, maybe, but exciting.

This incarnation of “RoboCop” is a give and take. For every one thing it does well, it botches something else entirely, sometimes in the same beat. A good example comes from its various references to the original film, like some lines of dialogue the more astute fans will recognize, but they’re shoehorned in to the point of being distracting more than amusing. The idea of a RoboCop is a silly one that the original film nevertheless proved could be something more. The best thing one can say about this 2014 reboot is this: it exists.

RoboCop receives 2.5/5

Wednesday
Feb122014

The LEGO Movie

When “The LEGO Movie” was announced, the world let out a collective groan. While the beloved brand has branched out in recent years to various media forms, including an ever growing popular series of video games starring Batman, Harry Potter, Indiana Jones, the Marvel heroes and more, a movie just seemed too much. At the time, it would not have been unfair to assume it would be a 100 minute commercial and, in a sense, it is, but this final product so much more than that. This is not a cheap cash grab by the company and the movie doesn’t have a singular purpose to sell product (though I imagine that will be an added bonus). This is a funny, thoughtful film with a surprisingly resonant story that warms the heart. Older audiences will hope “The LEGO Movie” will at least be watchable while it entertains their kids, but they’ll soon find a childlike wonder they haven’t experienced in a while. If you’ve been pining to feel like a kid again, “The LEGO Movie” will do it. It’s not just “good for a kid’s movie,” as many cynics may suggest. “The LEGO Movie” is destined to be one of the best of the year.

The story starts out silly enough. Emmet (Chris Pratt) is an ordinary guy, which is meant in the purest sense of the word. There is truly nothing special about him. He wakes up, does a few jumping jacks and heads off to work as a lowly construction worker. He’s a happy person, though much of that happiness is simply a façade to hide his loneliness. One day, however, things change when he stumbles onto an artifact known as the Kragle. Long ago, as the wise sage Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman) puts it, a prophecy was foretold of a Master Builder who would save the world from the potentially devastating effects of the Kragle, and much to his surprise, he's that hero. Along with his newfound partner, Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), he sets out to stop evil mogul, Lord Business (Will Ferrell), from freezing all of the world’s inhabitants and creating a perfect city.

These early moments are seemingly the most inconsistent for “The LEGO Movie.” It has some satirical bits, lampooning simplistic, one-joke television sitcoms with the LEGO world’s most popular show, “Where’s My Pants?” and generic pop music with the equally popular “Everything is Awesome!” But these moments are fleeting, as it quickly moves onto something else. It similarly pokes fun at itself, namely the immobility of the LEGO figures. When Emmet does those aforementioned jumping jacks, for instance, his motions are awkward, almost like he’s jumping up to cheer for something than to exercise, as the LEGO arms don’t extend out like is required for jumping jacks, only forward and backward. Another great moment is when the film admits that all LEGO characters essentially look the same (a search for Emmet by the evildoers yields no results because he “matches everyone in our database,” an underling says). But these moments come so rapidly as to seem a little inconsistent.

The story too is all over the place, a little bit like an ADD child on a sugar bender. Once it introduces its multiple universes angle, you start to wonder if the film is going to go completely overboard. But then something magical happens. A twist, which I dare not spoil, brings everything together. It explains why the story jumps around and why all of these seemingly unrelated characters from the vast Lego collection (which ranges from Shaquille O’Neal to Michelangelo the painter to Michelangelo the Ninja Turtle) have come together in one place. Unexpectedly, the film finds a purpose. In this silly, joke-a-second corporate product pushing movie with what appears to be, at first, a sporadic and inconsequential narrative, a giant heart is found. What happens is something that will seem all too familiar to certain members of the audience. While hardly revelatory, its ultimate message of letting loose your imagination and creativity is nevertheless endearing. It’s enough to make the parents in the audience want to take their kids home and let them run around and explore, creating magical worlds in their heads that only they can comprehend. It is that impactful.

If, somehow, the ending doesn’t touch you, there’s so much more to enjoy that it will hardly detract from your experience. The sight gags are contextually brilliant, like the fire effects that are merely see through orange plastics, and the absurd amount of cameos thrown into this thing is enough to make any nerd, LEGO fan or otherwise, smile with joy. From Harry Potter to the Simpsons to real life historical figures like Abraham Lincoln, the movie is packed to the brim with excellent inclusions, most of which you need to see for yourself. Even its soundtrack brings the goods, including a hilarious song written by Batman (Will Arnett) that satirizes the brooding nature of the character’s recent cinematic endeavors. Like a good spoof movie, the jokes come so rapidly here that one viewing is simply not enough. Most viewers are bound to miss the more subtle references and quick comedic jabs that “The LEGO Movie” throws in.

Too many adults these days seem to be lacking an imagination and a childlike sense of wonder. Their cynicism seeps through every facet of their being and they find that the ability to lose themselves in an adventure is now seemingly impossible. If you’re one of those people, especially one of the ones who desperately wants to recapture that youthful spirit, go see “The LEGO Movie” immediately. It’s about as magical and wondrous a movie as I’ve seen with more laughs per minute than any movie in recent memory. “The LEGO Movie” is an absolute delight.

The LEGO Movie receives 5/5

Friday
Jan312014

Labor Day

Jason Reitman has always excelled as a director by finding the extraordinary in the mundane. “Juno,” for example, was a simple story about a young, pregnant girl who use sarcasm to hide her insecurities and was forced to grow up before she was ready. “Up in the Air” was about a businessman who flew all over the world trying to hit the elusive 10 million mile mark only to discover that he has been chasing a meaningless dream. Eventually, he realized that, despite being surrounded by hundreds of people every day, he was just as lonely around them as he was back home by himself. However, in his latest film, “Labor Day,” Reitman attempts the opposite: to find the mundane in an extraordinary situation. As talented as he and his cast are, they can’t make this approach work. Its story is slow, hard-to-swallow, heavy handed and more worthy of eye rolls than tears.

“Labor Day” takes place in 1987. Young Henry (Gattlin Griffith) lives with his mother, Adele (Kate Winslet). She has been depressed and lonely ever since her husband, Gerald (Clark Gregg), left her. One day while out shopping, she and Henry are abducted by Frank (Josh Brolin), a recently escaped convict who was serving an 18 year sentence for murder. While at the hospital to get his appendix taken out, he jumped out of the second floor window while the cops were out for a smoke, resulting in a damaged leg. Since he has nowhere to go and can’t move well, he demands Adele drive him to her home where he shacks up for a few days. While there, he cleans, cooks and even fixes broken appliances, which slowly causes Adele to fall in love with him.

The way these moments are handled actually downplays the kidnapping. Never mind the fact that prior to these moments, he was gripping her son’s neck in a violent and threatening way. Or that he tied her up while Henry sat helplessly. Or that he used Henry as his guinea pig to shoo visitors away while he kept Adele from squealing nearby. Sure, Frank killed someone and could potentially kill her and Henry, but boy, can that man make a pie!

And there is its fundamental problem. “Labor Day” tries to negate the evildoings by showing that, hey, Frank is kind of a nice guy. Things may not be as clear cut as they seem, as evidenced by numerous flashbacks that are edited in so randomly as to be initially confusing, but the characers don’t know that. The film tries to make Adele a sympathetic character and, to an extent, she is—she’s clearly heartbroken and longs for some type of affection from someone other than her son—but as Henry puts it, it wasn’t losing his father that broke her heart, but the idea of losing love itself. She’s so desperate for that affection that she quickly looks past the threatening nature of Frank, which could potentially put her own son in harm’s way, for a quick emotional fix. If Frank had explained his indiscretions instead of giving vague assurances like “I’ve never intentionally hurt anyone,” then perhaps her decisions would have held more validity. Such is not the case, however, so they instead come with a lack of reasoning and a type of selfishness that makes her character extremely off-putting.

Thematically, Jason Reitman has never been too subtle. As good as the aforementioned “Juno” and “Up in the Air” are, you’d have to be pretty clueless to not see what they’re going for, but the events surrounding those themes were at least a bit more downplayed, particularly in “Up in the Air.” This makes me wonder what he was thinking while directing this. While some of the in-your-face pervasiveness can be attributed to others (the none-too-subtle score and sound editing quickly come to mind), others are clearly his own doing. The tone of the film is a complete mess, as is the dialogue that works as its foundation. Despite a score that makes it pretty clear upon his onscreen arrival that Frank is not necessarily who he seems to be, the film still tries to throw us off the trail with conflicting dialogue and character mood swings. Frank’s initial hostility quickly turns to a feeling of gratitude right before he once again starts issuing threats; a clumsy arc in an all-around clumsy movie.

To make matters worse, Brolin, in an uncharacteristically mediocre performance does everything he can to manufacture suspense, perhaps at the request of Reitman. He stays inside and away from prying eyes for the majority of the movie, but when he actually does come face-to-face with another person, he couldn’t be more suspicious if he tried. Every event that plays out in “Labor Day,” from the opening sequence to the final shot, is so preposterous that it’s far too difficult to take seriously, a request the film so desperately doles out to its viewers.

Adapted from the 2009 novel of the same name, “Labor Day” is awkwardly paced, tonally inconsistent and narratively absurd. One could joke that the movie came either too late or really early in relation to the actual day the title alludes to, but I’ll say in all seriousness that I wish it had never come at all.

Labor Day receives 1/5

Friday
Jan172014

Ride Along

I heard a radio spot on my drive to the screening for “Ride Along” that spoke quite highly of it, in which it called star Kevin Hart the funniest man in America and the film itself as “the first great comedy of the year.” “Who said these things,” I wondered, before realizing that the quotes weren’t actually attributed to anyone. In television commercials, studios use quick blurbs from critics that inflate the film in an effort to get people to go see it. It was a smart move to use the same tactic on the radio, because unassuming listeners will assume the quote is lifted from a professional and not simply said by a paid announcer. I imagine this kind of deception is the only way they’ll be able to get people to see “Ride Along” because, despite a couple of legitimate laughs, it’s largely unwatchable.

Hart plays Ben, an aspiring police officer who corresponds actual police work with his first person shooter video games. He is in love with Angela (Tika Sumpter) and wishes to marry her, but to do that, he needs the approval of the only other man in her life, her intimidating, hard boiled brother, James (Ice Cube). James doesn’t like Ben and doesn’t consider him a good fit for his sister, much less a potential member of his police squad. However, Ben wants to show James that he’s a man, so James, under the ruse of giving him a chance, offers to give him a ride along. For a full day, Ben will head out with James on his police duties and James plans to make it as uncomfortable as possible to deter him from both marrying his sister and entering the police force.

Upon first impression, it’s clear that “Ride Along” is going to be a visually ugly movie. Its drab colors, no doubt increased by the desire to be satirical of “gritty” buddy cop crime dramas, pervade the screen. Its shot composition is equally unpleasing to the eye, with close-ups even extreme close-ups would consider a bit much and framing so bad it’s hard to actually read the narratively important letter the film lingers on in close-up.

But these issues are minor when in a comedy. Comedies only need to be funny. A weak story and poor visuals don’t carry much weight when you’re laughing hysterically. Unfortunately, “Ride Along” musters up only a few laughs in its 100 minute runtime. Hart, while okay in small bursts or as a supporting character (like in 2012’s surprisingly good “Think Like a Man”), is grating in long stretches. Like a miniaturized Chris Tucker, he equates comedy to spastic mannerisms and furiously fast talking. When not restrained, he overdoes this and “Ride Along” is anything but restrained.

When he’s called on for physical comedy, he’s equally bad and overacts to an absurd degree. But the real problem this film faces is that its jokes are tired and obvious. It’s easy to spot these jokes coming well before they actually appears, like when Ben is blown back by the recoil of a shotgun that is about the size of one of his legs. In a sense, Kevin Hart is treated like a reverse Kevin James, the latter always abused because of his large weight and the former treated like a feather in the wind.

The story also lacks the satirical bite it occasionally tries to capture, often succumbing to the very things it mocks. When James is laid into by the police chief for being reckless, it’s not played tongue-in-cheek as it should be; it’s taken grossly seriously. Similarly, the twist (spoiler alert!) is your typical double agent twist that is painfully clear the moment you see the person or persons in question near the beginning of the film. When you factor in the desperate dialogue that tries so hard to throw you off the scent that it ends up doing the exact opposite—the double agent(s) repeatedly tell James he should give up the investigation for a variety of reasons—the movie becomes nothing more than another disastrous January turd. If you want to see a good buddy cop satire, watch “21 Jump Street.” You won’t find much value in “Ride Along.”

Ride Along receives 1/5

Thursday
Jan092014

Lone Survivor

Last year’s “Battleship,” directed by Peter Berg, was hands down one of the worst movies of the year. It was a stupid idea based off a simplistic board game that was full of enormous amounts of cheese and patriotic grandstanding. While pride in one’s country is certainly not a bad thing, the ridiculous alien invasion story that surrounded it made such grandstanding laughable. When you combined that with lazy dialogue, contrived plot points and horrific performances, particularly from real life war veteran Gregory D. Gadson in one of the worst performances ever put to screen, you got something that was practically unwatchable. Berg is now back with “Lone Survivor,” another “Go America!” film that shares a fair amount of rough dialogue and cheesy moments, but these moments are offset by real actors giving gritty performances and action scenes that are truly intense. It’s not perfect (and it’s highly unlikely its limited release shoehorning into the last week of December is going to give it any awards recognition), but this is a major step up from Berg’s previous travesty. This is actually quite good.

Based on a true story, “Lone Survivor” follows SEAL Team 10 on a mission dubbed “Operation Red Wings.” Their goal is to capture or kill terrorist leader Ahmad Shahd. After a smooth drop into the nearby mountains, they identify their target on the grounds below. However, some unexpected civilians show up to put a kink in their plans. They have one of two options: they can either let them go and risk exposure or kill them and continue on with the mission. Refusing to kill civilians, they decide to let them go. Unfortunately, their radio equipment is malfunctioning and after those civilians notify the terrorists below, they find themselves in a firefight in the mountains.

“Lone Survivor” is not a pleasant film. Despite all the action, this is not a fun, stand-up-and-cheer “Rambo” type of action movie. It’s intense and scary and, for a while at least, a slow-burner. This doesn’t open with a slam-bang introduction, nor does it end with a high-flying conclusion. Instead, it starts out slow before finally erupting into violence. And when the bullets start flying, they don’t stop. The action never lets up, so the grip the film has on you stays there until the end. Slow beginnings like these require good acting to keep things interesting and this talented cast, which includes Mark Wahlberg, Emile Hirsch and Ben Foster, among others, is up to the task. Despite the cloying music and sentimental dialogue about their loved ones back home, they create real people out of these characters. By the time many of their inevitable deaths come, they mean something.

One of Peter Berg’s biggest deficiencies as a director, at least in regards to “Battleship,” was that he went too big. Everything was bombastic and in-your-face. He smartly goes the opposite route here. Much of the action consists of pop-and-shoot gunplay which requires a more focused approach than an explode-y Avengers-esque film, where the visuals can make up for a lack of substance, and he manages to pull it off. The sole flourish he occasionally includes are down-the-barrel shots, similar to a first person shooter video game, which feels a bit out of place in the context of both the story and style he implements elsewhere.

Bizarre stylistic choices similar to that are easily the film’s biggest problems, including an over usage of slow motion, which is supposed to be dramatic, but instead only serves to pull you out of the otherwise gripping and realistic action. But the movie’s intention is to highlight the heroic actions of these men who risked everything to live up to a well-intentioned moral code. They did the right thing and it cost almost all of them their lives. These men are to be applauded and remembered because even though their job required them to be violent, they carried out that violence only when necessary and they valued the lives of the innocent, and the lives of their fellow soldiers, above their own. That’s a noble thing. It’s still a bit too Hollywood to resonate and that aforementioned patriotic grandstanding is so heavy-handed that it threatens to derail it, but in the end, “Lone Survivor” strives to tell a simple story of courage and nobility and it does it well.

Lone Survivor receives 3.5/5